Inspired by Past, Kingsley Adds to Tradition with 1st Championship since 2005

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

November 25, 2023

DETROIT – When Kingsley head football coach Tim Wooer was presented the MHSAA Division 6 championship trophy Saturday night at Ford Field, he turned, raised it over his head, and acknowledged the roaring throng of orange-clad Stags fans in the stands.

Community, tradition, and history mean everything to the 1998 Kingsley alumnus.

All of those things were recognized and on display during and after Kingsley’s 38-24 victory over Almont, which secured the Stags their second Finals championship and first since 2005.

Kingsley senior Eli Graves made history in his own right. He rushed for 210 yards and four touchdowns, plus he accounted for three two-point conversions, for a total of 30 points to tie the all-division 11-player Finals record for points in a game by one player.

“We have the best O-line in D6, so it’s pretty easy to run behind those guys,” Graves said. “When they get the job done, it makes my job easy. And I’ve just got a coach that trusts me with the ball.”

Wooer believes in his players, present and past. They share a special bond, which was apparent during the postgame press conference after Kingsley put a memorable finish on its 12-2 season.

Eli Graves (2) follows teammate James Pearson upfield. Graves was one of four Stags players Wooer brought to the postgame press conference. Wooer also brought assistant coach Connor Schueller, a fullback on the 2021 team, whose mother Trina Schueller died from COVID-19 in October 2021.

“I think the reason I’ve got him in here tonight is because sometimes as a coach – and this is true of (the late) Justin Hansen, too – there’s a shift of where you’re supposed to be the role model,” an emotional Wooer said, pausing to collect himself. “You’re supposed to be the role model for players, you’re supposed to teach them everything. 

“And then there comes a time when your players teach you about life. And Justin Hansen did that for sure, and so did Connor Schueller. Two pretty important people in our lives in our community.”

Hansen was a captain on Kingsley’s 2002 conference championship team. He was a special-ops Marine, who was killed in action in July 2012.

On Saturday, Wooer wore a red T-shirt with the letters “USA” on the front and the name “Hansen” on the back. 

“It’s truly taken me about 10 to 11 years to be able to talk about it. But I can remember as I driving out of town that evening, crying and sobbing and being angry and having all these emotions, I wanted to make sure that he was always remembered,” Wooer said, his eyes welling up before a momentary pause to compose himself. “So he was here today, and he was remembered.”

Graves put on a performance that will not soon be forgotten. The wiry 6-foot-3, 175-pounder scored on TD runs of 3, 30, 5, and 6 yards. 

Graves tacked on a pair of two-point conversion runs, and he hauled in a two-point conversion pass with some fine footwork along the sideline.

“He’s a good player downhill. Not much to say about it,” Almont senior Ayden Ferqueron said. “The wing-T is hard to stop. When you’ve got a running back that goes downhill and able to follow his blocks, see holes, and hit them (it’s tough to stop).”

Kingsley outgained Almont in total yards (371-191), holding a big advantage in rushing yardage (331-174) and an edge in its timely passing game (66-17).

Stags junior tight end Chase Bott caught a 35-yard TD pass from senior Gavyn Merchant, and senior Skylar Workman ran in the two-point conversion for a 30-17 lead eight seconds into the fourth quarter.

Almont hung around throughout the game, pulling within 30-24 on senior Cole Walton’s 35-yard TD pass from senior Chase Davedowski and sophomore Sean O’Neil’s PAT with 7:55 remaining. 

Max Goethals (11) pulls in a pass for the Stags. But every time the Raiders pulled within striking distance, the Stags had an answer and it usually came from Graves, who put it away with his final TD run with 2:19 left.

Almont, which was making its first Finals appearance since 2019 and looking for its first title, finished with a 12-2 record.

“Nothing that we didn’t prepare for. They were just more physical off the ball than us,” Almont coach James Leusby said. “Defensively-wise, we got pushed back a little and hadn’t faced that all year, so hats (off) to them.”

Almont senior Chase Battani scored on a 65-yard TD sprint, while Ferqueron ran for a 2-yard score. Ferqueron and Battani led all defensive players in the game with 15 and 13 stops, respectively.

Graves said he wore jersey No. 2 for his brother, Owen Graves, who was part of Kingsley’s 2020 team that had to forfeit in the playoffs because of COVID.

Eli Graves said he did not get the chance to see his brother after the game, but added he’ll probably brag to him about his performance once he sees him. He knows his brother is proud.

“He never got to finish his senior season because they had to forfeit due to COVID, so we always play our hardest for that team because they didn’t get a chance to do this,” Graves said.

Wooer was the architect who helped build Kingsley into the program it has become. His 2005 team defeated Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, 31-21, for the Stags’ first championship.

Wooer left Kingsley and coached at Traverse City West for a decade before he returned to his alma mater in 2018.

For coaches, comparing state-title teams is like comparing one’s children. You love them all the same.

“They’re both fun,” Wooer said with a chuckle when asked to compare Kingsley’s two title winners. “I would say, people have asked me that question in terms of, ‘Which team was better? How were they similar? How were they different?’ 

“I think the one characteristic when you get a team of this caliber is the character and the morals and the ethics and just the leadership. When I was 24 years old, it was all about having the biggest, fastest, strongest kids. And the longer I coach, the more I understand that having guys like this lead your team is the magic potion.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Kingsley’s Chase Bott (84) makes his move toward the goalline while Chase Battani works to wrap him up Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) Eli Graves (2) follows teammate James Pearson upfield. (Below) Max Goethals (11) pulls in a pass for the Stags. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)  

Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for

January 16, 2024

LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.

Southwest CorridorAs a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.

Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.

“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.

“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”

That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.

He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.

Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.

“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better. 

“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”

Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.

His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.

“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).

“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.

Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.

“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”

The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.

"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.

 From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.

“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.

Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.

“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”

Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”

Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.

“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.

"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”

Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.

“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”

Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”

Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.

“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”

The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.

“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”

Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes. 

“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.

“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)